An Appraisal of Australian Maritime Strategy: Part I

Andreas Haggman

HMAS Darwin

Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Darwin. Photo source: Kristopher Wilson via Wikipedia Commons.

Australia is often overlooked as an important contributor to East Asia’s economic and security developments in analyses regarding the region’s maritime environment. Though situated on the periphery, divided from the main areas of concern by the Indonesian archipelago, Australia has close ties, both economic and political, with the most important protagonists in the region. This two-part piece will argue that Australian maritime influence should maintain a balance between hard and soft power. Australia should begin by extending assertiveness in its immediate sphere of interest – the inner arc and Indonesia – but also reach out further through more malleable means – humanitarian assistance and patrol boats programmes. The country has real interests in extending its maritime influence far beyond its territorial waters, but lacks capability for hard power projection and should therefore continue to pursue policies that allow it to wield soft power in its main areas of concern.

This first part will focus on areas which are geographically proximate to Australia, and over which it thereby is able to exert direct and physical influence in the short and medium term. Part II will then proceed to analyse strategies which are longer-term and cover larger geographical regions.

Importance of protecting shipping and sea lines of communication

Australia’s area of ‘direct military interest constitutes about 10 percent of the earth’s surface’[1] and if we widen this to ‘direct strategic interest’ it is about 25 percent[2], with much of this being maritime in nature. Furthermore, over 90 percent of Australia’s trade is conducted via the sea.[1] Therefore, in general terms the maritime environment is vital to Australia’s economic security and prosperity. In more specific terms, Australia’s most important trading partners are located in Asia. Three times as much tonnage of shipping moves between Australia and Asia than between Australia and North America, and more than twice as much as between Australia and Europe.[3] It is therefore evident that protecting shipping and sea lanes of communication is a priority, especially in the East Asian maritime environment.

Australia Inner Arc

Adapted picture showing Australia and approximate location of the inner arc. Photo source: Ssolbergj via Wikimedia Commons

The above statement requires qualification, for unless the shipping is in any danger there is no need to protect it, as Matthew Flint asserts: ‘without the presence of a perceived or actual threat…there is no requirement for a surveillance and response capability.’[4] In South East Asia, such an actual threat is indeed presented by maritime piracy and terrorism.[4,5] This is particularly prevalent in Indonesia, which in 2002 accounted for 119 of the 469 worldwide piracy incidents.[6] This makes the Indonesian archipelago of immediate concern to Australia, in particular the ‘inner arc’ through which half of the world’s commercial shipping transits, including 40 percent of Australia’s imports and 50 percent of its exports.[7] This inner arc comprises the chain of islands stretching from Indonesia in the west to the Solomon Islands in the east, effectively occupying the entirety of Australia’s immediate northern area of interest and providing numerous choke points through which shipping transiting between Australia and its East Asian trading partners must travel. The arc is therefore a prime candidate for a sphere of influence where Australia can assert its dominance.

Power projection in the inner arc

That is not to say that Australia should wantonly establish military bases on islands within the arc. Such installations are outside Australia’s reach partly because they impinge on the sovereignty of the states in which they are located, but mostly because they require monetary and manpower resources which Australia simply does not possess. The defence budget of AUS$26 billion is not sufficient to construct and maintain a network of overseas military installations. The cost of US overseas operations (excluding Iraq and Afghanistan), for example, amounted to US$35 billion in 2012. Whilst Australian operations may not be on the scale of their American ally’s, the figures are illustrative in terms of the sums of money involved in such ventures and how far they exceed Australia’s budgetary reach. At just under 23 million, the Australian population is dwarfed by the number of inhabitants of most East Asian states (China 1.3 billion, Indonesia 246 million, Japan 127 million, Philippines 96 million, Thailand 66 million), as well as that of the United States (313 million). A smaller population means a smaller pool from which to recruit personnel into the armed forces. In order to station personnel at overseas bases, the manpower level needs to exceed the minimum number required for home defence. For Australia, this is far from the current state of affairs in which the armed forces, especially the Navy, are struggling to meet manpower demands.[8] Without this excess of personnel, establishing military bases in the inner arc is therefore out of Australia’s current capabilities.

On the issue of extending influence over the inner arc, strategies available to Australia revolve around Australia’s status as a medium Power and the ways to strike a balance between hard and soft power. It can be argued that a precedent has already been set for one such strategy by the Australian peacekeeping mission to East Timor. The troubles brewing in East Timor were deemed serious enough to affect Australia’s vital interests, leading to a UN-mandated intervention led by an Australian contribution of 5500 troops in 1999.[10] East Timor’s proximity to Australia was a security issue in itself, but there were also considerable economic and humanitarian interests that contributed to the decision to intervene, including relations with Indonesia.[11] The geographic immediacy of East Timor puts it firmly within Australia’s sphere of influence so affirmative action can be considered a necessity in order for

Australian Troops East Timor

Australian troops in East Timor. Photo source: Dan Mennuto via Wikipedia Commons.

Australia to assert its dominance within this sphere. To reiterate, however, this dominance ought not to be mistaken for outright hard power. A military presence, as Richard Hill suggests, ‘serves less well defined objectives, demonstrating a variety of characteristics from fighting power at one end to intent of the most benign at the other.’[9] The primary objective of the peacekeeping force was of course to ensure the stability of East Timor and the safety of its inhabitants, but for Australia there were added benefits of simultaneously exercising a balance between hard power (military presence) and soft power (state-building, international relationships). Furthermore, multilateral cooperation is more resource-efficient than unilateral action (in East Timor, for example, Australia’s contribution was the largest contingent in a total force of 21 000 [10]), meaning such operations sit within the restrictions imposed by modest Australian capabilities. Taking a lead in international missions is therefore an apt strategy by which Australia can extend maritime influence to its immediate sphere of interest.




[1] W. S. G. Bateman and R. J. Sherwood (1992), Principles of Australian Maritime Operations, Working Paper 265 (Strategic and Defence Studies Centre: Canberra)

[2] Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade (2004), Australia’s Maritime Strategy (The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra)

[3] Peter J Rimmer (2003), ‘Commercial Shipping Patterns in the Asian-Pacific Region, 1990-2000: The Rise and Rise of China’ in Andrew Forbes, ed., The Strategic Importance of Seaborne Trade and Shipping – A Common Interest of Asia Pacific (RAN Sea Power Centre: Canberra)

[4] Matthew W. Flint (2003), The Timor Sea Joint Petroleum Development Area Oil and Gas Resources: The Defence Implications, Working Paper 13 (Sea Power Centre Australia: Canberra)

[5] Rachel Baird, ‘Transnational security issues in the Asian maritime environment: responding to maritime piracy’ in Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 66, No. 5, pp. 501-513 (November 2012)

[6] Clive Williams (2003), ‘Unlawful Activities At Sea: An Australian Perspective’ in Forbes, Andrew, ed., The Strategic Importance of Seaborne Trade and Shipping – A Common Interest of Asia Pacific (RAN Sea Power Centre: Canberra)

[7] John Reeve (2001), Maritime Security and Defence of the Archipelagic Inner Arc, Working Paper 5 (Royal Australian Navy Sea Power Centre: Canberra)

[8] Thomson, Mark (2010), The Cost of Defence – ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2010-11 (Australian Strategic Policy Institute: Barton)

[9] Hill, Richard (2000), Medium Power Strategy Revisited, Working Paper 3 (Royal Australian Navy Sea Power Centre: Jervis Bay)

[10] The Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (2008), Australia’s involvement in peacekeeping operations (Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra)

[11] Cotton, James, ‘”Peacekeeping” in East Timor: An Australian Policy Departure’ in Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 3, pp. 237-246 (1999)

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